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As a Black woman living and working in the Deep South, Women’s Equality Day is a reminder of the work that still lies ahead to ensuring equal voting rights and ballot access for all. Collectively, women of color have been at the forefront of organizing around issues impacting their respective families and communities, with a long tradition of leveraging voting as a means to an end and not the end goal itself.

The selective enfranchisement of particular groups of people while leaving barriers to the ballot in place for others is a time honored American tradition. Established to celebrate the 19th Amendment becoming the law of the land, Women’s Equality Day, like the 19th Amendment, was not created with the experiences and work of women of color in mind. The piecemeal approach to granting rights is meant to control those who are able to access and participate fully in democracy. Such limitations, however, have not stopped Black, Indigenous, and other women of color for continuing to demand what is owed.  

Black women and the legacy of this moment

Political empowerment has also come from engaging in the process as organizers, campaign staff, political strategists, organizational heads, and candidates themselves. Our political foremothers did not shy away from agenda setting and making their voices heard.

“If we’re not organizing to be ‘in the room where it happens,’ we are not going to be part of the major policy decisions that will affect our community very deeply,” said Atima Omara, president of Omara Strategy Group and vice chair of the DNC Women’s Caucus.

Black women maintain the ability to simultaneously recognize the importance of historical moments along with the necessity of pushing hard when need be.

“We’re in a critical moment in our country where electorally, people recognize the contributions of Black people [and] Black women in particular,” said Omara. “That is without a doubt due the fact that Black women have used opportunities on social media, the news, and their leadership in movement organizations and the Democratic Party to remind people of that fact regularly.”

As president and CEO of Higher Heights, a national organization committed to building Black women’s political power, Glynda Carr sees a clear connection between Black women’s fight for suffrage to Black women running for office today and the selection of a Black woman as the vice presidential nominee.

“[There] is a timeline from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm to frankly Stacey Abrams and the way she led her gubernatorial campaign that set the moment for the vice president [considering] Black women who didn’t fit the usual pathway,” said Carr. “All of the Black women who were senior-level staff during the Democratic primary, like [Julián] Castro’s campaign manager Maya Rupert or [Rep.] Lisa Blunt from Rochester, set the tone for this moment.”

Carr pointed to the unprecedented number of Black women running for Congress and other down ballot seats across the country as turning points in the 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment. Referencing a recent poll conducted by Higher Heights, Carr said that voters regardless of race were excited about Black women’s leadership in elected office. “This means a lot from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket,” Carr said. “And so the legacy of this moment is that we will see a record number of Black women elected to office in November.”

Toward a more reflective democracy

More than a cool term of art, reflective democracy refers to a concerted effort to have a political process and elected government that looks more like the diversity of the country. Equally important is the expanded voter engagement and deepening relationships in traditionally overlooked communities long before Election Day.

The PBS documentaryAnd She Could Be Next highlighted the campaigns of several women of color running for local, state, and congressional office. Led by a women of color documentary team, And She Could Be Next went behind the scenes to explore the dedicated grassroots organizers who powered groundbreaking campaigns in Texas, Illinois, Georgia, and California.

Directors Marjan Safinia and Grace Lee set out to cover an American political story that was explicitly centered race and gender. Speaking with Prism, both Safina and Lee said two takeaways from the documentary are that there is an organizer in all of us and finding a movement home helps strengthen and support a more civically engaged public. The documentary is available for free streaming through Aug. 31.

“As a woman of color, I’m constantly thinking about power and how to shift it,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance during a launch event for the documentary. “Some of the most powerful forms of building power are really about bringing the whole of who you are into the work and into the movement.”

During a panel on building an electorate that looks like America, Sayu Bhojwani, a democracy activist and president of New American Leaders, highlighted the resilience and creativity of young progressive challengers of color resulting in a wave of new elected leaders despite the pandemic. Bhojwani attributed the wins to the turn out of infrequent and new voters. From her vantage point, Bhojwani also found that traditional voters are fed up with the status quo.

Cassandra Chase, nonprofit coordinator for the Empowerment Congress, shared her experience as a small child voting with her mother. “Our vote is our voice,” said Chase. “[It] is just the start of the democratic process that we have here in America. She continued on to explain that being an informed voter is only part of the process which includes community involvement.

Brianna Carmen, director of organizing and partnerships for Voto Latino, also emphasized the importance of voting at this moment as she discussed the organization’s outreach with Latinx voters. “We’re just walking into a hard environment where people acknowledge that voting is important,” said Carmen.

“The public narrative is helping people to see that the problem that they experienced as an individual at the polling booth is part of a systemic problem and so they’re willing to make the extra effort,” Bhojwani said.

Voting as a strategic tool

On this Women’s Equality Day, voting rights advocates and civic engagement leaders fight for fair and accurate census counts. Many of these same leaders fight for general election plans that provide adequate coverage and support for voters regardless of how they cast a ballot. They are ensuring that voters are informed about their options in casting a ballot and making sure every vote counts. But like Mary Church Terrell, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells, and Nannie Helen Burroughs, today’s suffrage champions see voting not as the end goal, but as a tool for empowering their communities.

Speaking to the work ahead, New Georgia Project’s CEO Nse Ufot reflected on the often quoted Martin Luther King Jr. phrase: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“People will emphasize different parts of the quote, but this part that I’m thinking about right now is that long, super long [arc],” said Ufot. “[It] is long and drawn out, and we are going to have to be able to run this marathon and it is much easier when you are a part of a movement when you are a part of an organization.” Ufot compared having a movement home or being a part of an organization to a choir collectively working together to hit the long notes.

Advocates from other issue areas are also leaning into the conversation around voting rights. Reflecting on the current moment and the unfulfilled promise of the 19th Amendment, Monica Edwards, federal policy manager for URGE, said that young people need to be engaged more consistently instead of just demanding their vote at election time.

“A lot of the issues that fall within [reproductive justice] are regulated by policies that are put in place by white men traditionally,” said Edwards. ”A part of voting is making sure that we get people in power, who not only look like us, but actually represent the values that we stand for.”

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.